A Mirrorless Soccer Experience

I decided to get rid of my Nikon Z50 mirrorless camera a couple months ago, but kept my Sony a6100. I brought it to a few soccer games recently to spend some more time with its autofocus and subject tracking capabilities. I brought my Nikon D500 for comparison.

Game 1: Not the Best Performance

For the first game I brought one lens for the a6100: my Samyang 75mm f/1.8. It’s a native lens for the E mount, it’s sharp, and it autofocuses pretty fast. While it provides higher magnification on the cropped a6100 (112.5 mm), it doesn’t have the reach that my 70 – 200mm can get on my Nikon D500. As a result, the Sony’s eye detect AF didn’t activate very often because the players weren’t large enough in the frame. Overall it still locked focus, but it wasn’t any “better” than my Nikon.

This image illustrates a couple of the challenges I had at the first game – a lens that wasn’t long enough to get close to the action and dark shadows that made the EVF difficult to use. I had to pull up the shadows quite a lot to make this usable.

I spent most of my time using subject tracking mode, and it performed about the same as the D500’s 3D tracking. This was due to the short focal length of the lens making the players smaller and more difficult to track. The a6100’s tracking should be stickier and more accurate due to the larger number of focus points and larger tracking area. I got some good images, but using the a6100 felt like a lot of work.

I switched to my D500 for the second half of the game and felt right at home, though I didn’t use 3D tracking that much. I struggle to get the hang of 3D tracking and don’t find it to stay on the subject very well. I switched to dynamic area mode, which is my comfort zone, and got a bunch of great shots. It requires me to keep the focus point on the subject manually, but the joystick makes it easy to move the point quickly if needed. The larger, more professional body of the D500 also made my experience far more comfortable.

Game 2: An Unexpected Advantage

I brought my Sony 70 – 210 mm E mount lens to the second game. It’s a variable aperture lens, from f/4.5 – f/6.3, but does include stabilization. Since it had so much more reach than my 75 mm Samyang, I was able to experience more subject recognition features and better evaluate tracking. I definitely saw more face and sometimes eye recognition on the players, but it struggled to track an individual player within a group, often breaking tracking and switching to general AF. When players had a bit of isolation around them it did really well. The lens isn’t very sharp though, and had to be stopped down to f/8 for best results.

Here is one of the images I took with the Sony lens. It’s not bad, but even at f/8 some of the details are a bit fuzzy. The Nikon at the same shutter speed is far sharper, even at f/4.

Since I knew my Sony 70 – 210 wasn’t a great lens, I decided to try an experiment. I had purchased a Nikon to Sony adapter from Lens Authority earlier this year when it was folded into LensRentals.com. It was used and on clearance and I though it would be a cool thing to try. It’s a bit finicky so I hadn’t used it much but I wanted to see how, and if, my Nikon 70 – 200 mm f/4 would perform.

To my surprise it performed very well. I didn’t think it would focus fast enough to keep up with subject tracking or that subject tracking and recognition wouldn’t work at all. I was wrong. It focused accurately, quickly, and I was able to fire off 10 fps bursts throughout the game with few issues. The results were a series of crisp, contrasty images with nicely blurred backgrounds. It works better than the same lens on Nikon’s own Z50 mirrorless camera through Nikon’s own adapter. Yikes. Despite less comfortable ergonomics, I used the Sony camera / Nikon lens Frankenstein combo for the entire game.

I ran into one issue during the game: I noticed the lens couldn’t lock focus for more than a few seconds through the adapter. I’d try to pre-focus on the goalie or a player to capture upcoming action, but the Nikon lens could only hold focus for a few second before abruptly defocusing the entire shot. It turned out to be a behavior I quickly learned to live with by taking my finger off the focus button every couple of seconds. By “pumping” the focus I was able to get most of my images in focus. Despite this small challenge I was really impressed with the performance of the adapted lens.

Game 3: Finding the Sweet Spot

I brought the Sony / Nikon combo to a third game and brought along a 28 – 300mm variable aperture Nikon lens for more reach. Unfortunately it didn’t work on the adapter very well at all. It took a very long time to focus and missed 75% of the time. I had a similar experience with my 24 – 120mm f/4. Guess I’ll stick to the 70 – 200mm, which is fine for this situation anyway.

I tried a higher shutter speed to better freeze action and used the “small” subject tracking focus area (instead of “large”) because I thought it might improve accuracy a bit. It did not. I think the box was so small that it often focused just off of the player and on the background. I threw away a lot of images because of it. Lesson learned.

The photos that were in focus however, were great, just like the last game. Once again the Nikon lens kept up and I found subject tracking to be much better than 3D tracking. It’s also so cool to watch it highlight the player, the face, the eye, and go back and forth as all of the action happens. It reminds me of the scene in The Terminator when you see his view and how he highlights and analyzes everything in the scene. He’ll be back.

Additional Learnings

I learned a few other things during my mirrorless extravaganza. First, the viewfinder doesn’t do well in dark areas. The goal in the first game was in a very shady area and the EVF was so dark that I couldn’t see anything. I just jammed the focus button and fired away hoping to get something in focus. I wasn’t very successful. The second game had no shade, which caused a different problem. Light leaked into the viewfinder from beside me and washed it out. I ended up cupping my hand over the side of the camera for the rest of the game so I could see.

While neither of those scenarios happen with my DSLRs, they aren’t indicative of a huge mirrorless problem either. It still happens on mirrorless cameras more than DSLRs, but electronic viewfinder in my a6100 is also one of the worst of any on the market. It’s a low-end camera with a low-end EVF. Adding an eyecup helped with the light leakage issue for the third game anyway.

Using my a6100 for sports with varying lighting conditions gave me more opportunities to experience its RAW exposure latitude (and limitations) in post. Many shots needed their shadows increased significantly and I started to see the limitations of the 12-bit format required to hit 10 fps. Shadows could not brighten as much as my 14-bit D500 RAWs and tended to turn blue pretty quickly. This limited what I could do in post and resulted in darker images than I could get on my D500.

Excited for Mirrorless

Overall those are minor issues that I can work with. I don’t expect perfection from a $700 low-end mirrorless camera. The autofocus was outstanding, especially with an adapted lens, and its burst rate keeps up with my semi-pro Nikon. I was able to get great shots more easily, and that’s what matters. This experience has made me even more excited to get a full frame mirrorless camera when Nikon finally has what I want. I’ll use this little combo in the meantime.

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